Vicar's Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, September 29, 2019 (16 Pentecost, Proper 21 - Year C).

St. Luke 16: 19-31

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the spring of 1956 I, a 17-year-old kid “wet behind the ears,” was invited to preach at the Wheeler Mission in downtown Indianapolis. The Wheeler Mission was founded in 1893 and is still there on Market Street where the staff ministers to homeless men, not an insignificant number of which are alcohol and/or drug addicts.

I have no recall as to what I preached, but being a Baptist at that time I’m sure I called them to repentance of “their sinful ways.” What I do remember is that I wore a coarsely woven gray wool suit with little flecks of black, red, and silver in it, a black knit tie, and a white shirt. I also recall that I wasn’t effective that night. No one “came forward” at the “altar call” to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. Later, in my naiveté, I reasoned it was because I was a young “whipper snapper” who didn’t know a thing about their life stories or the way they lived — which is true — but of primary consideration in my mind was the way I was dressed. I, clean, well-dressed, and they in obvious contrast.

A few months later, on a hot August evening I was back at the Wheeler Mission. This time I was dressed in slacks and a short sleeved shirt. The superintendent of the Mission greeted me and he wasn’t very happy. “You are going to get into the pulpit dressed like that?” he asked. I replied affirmatively and he retorted, “You wouldn’t get away with that in my Methodist church!” Startled, I said, “I just wanted to be like them.” He bellowed, “You are not like one of them.” And then quoting St. Paul, out of context, although I didn’t know it at the time, he said, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.” That’s from II Corinthians 6:17 where Paul admonishes Christians not to marry unbelievers.

But was the superintendent right? Are we different than Lazarus, who lies at the rich man’s gate begging for scraps of food? I’ll get back to this at the conclusion of this homily.

There are two things about the rich man that Jesus judges in this parable. The first is his extravagance. It is not his wealth per se, but the way he uses it. “Purple” and “fine linen” in those days were symbols of wealth, but purple in particular shows us the man’s extravagance. In the first century Roman world purple was a sign of what we would call today “conspicuous consumption.” The rich man would fit right in to our “sin of consumption,” wouldn’t he? Maybe you, like me and Candy, have reached a point in your life where “downsizing” is not only a viable option, but a necessary one. Recently I have looked around in drawers, closets, and other storage places. “When was the last time I took notice of this?” I asked myself. Or, “When was the last time I used this?” What’s more damning is to look at something that has been around for a long time and wondering, “What the heck do you use that thing for?” Or to discover you have something you’ve never used.

The second thing that Jesus judges in this parable is that the rich man is oblivious to Lazarus’ need. What do you suppose the rich man is thinking as he sees Lazarus every day at the gate to his expansive estate? What would we be thinking if we were that wealthy man? “Lazarus is a bum. If I feed him he will certainly expect me to do this for him every day. And what will my dinner guests think as they see him at the gate?” Lazarus is a sight with all those sores. No one will want to eat anything when they see that.

We may think that the best thing for us to do is to ignore Lazarus and maybe he’ll get the message. Turn his life around, get a job, become a God-fearing, industrious person like I. Until then he needs to let the “bleeding hearts” at the soup kitchen feed him. Is it safe to say that the rich man’s self-righteousness is worse than Lazarus trespassing at his gate? I think so. And this is what Jesus judges in us from time-to-time, our feeling “holier than thou.”

I made reference to the “bleeding hearts” at the soup kitchen. I can’t leave that hanging in the air, because it’s not fair. And many of us do other kinds of works of mercy that Our Lord must surely celebrate. He says in another place that the righteous will be known by their selflessness in visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving shelter to the homeless. But it is so easy for us to commend ourselves for the good that we do. With that we might well consider these words of St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), founder of the Lazarist Fathers and the Sisters of Charity.

You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry;
heavier than a bowl of soup and the full basket.
But you will keep your gentleness and your smile.
It is not enough to give soup and bread.
This the rich can do.
You are the servant of the poor,
always smiling, and always good humored.
They are your masters -
terribly sensitive and exacting masters.
You will see, the uglier and dirtier they will be,
the more unjust and insulting,
the more love you must give.
It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you
the bread you give to them.

Was the superintendent of the Wheeler Mission correct in admonishing me? Are we different than Lazarus, who lies at the rich man’s gate begging for scraps of food? If we are condescending in our charity, as I realize I was as I tried to present myself as “one of them,” he was right. The gray suit was not the barrier I thought it was. If first of all we are sensitive to the ease at which we can flaunt our wealth, then repentant with that awareness, our riches can be redemption for those like Lazarus.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"